Story: Professor Henry Higgins roams the streets of Edwardian London to chronicle the dialects of people in various parts of the city. The ardent phoneticist is convinced of the importance of good speech in conveying upper-class society. So much so that he makes a wager with his new-found friend Colonel Pickering that he can transform a thickly-accented Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle and then present her as a lady of means by teaching her proper diction.
Pickering accepts the bet. When Eliza subsequently shows up at Higgins’ home to pay for diction classes so that she might one day work in an actual flower shop, Higgins begins the exhaustive process of teaching the feisty young woman how to properly speak in “polite society.”
Highlights: Referred to as “the perfect musical,” My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956 and proceeded to run for seven years and more than 2,700 performances, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (after a sculptor in Greek mythology who fell in love with one of his sculptures), it starred Rex Harrison and a young Julie Andrews.
The book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe feature a stunning array of tunes that have become standards. The current production at Stages, just the second in the company’s history, features a spirited performance by Pamela Brumley as Eliza, both musically and comically, that makes director Michael Hamilton’s take invigorating and eminently enjoyable.
Other Info: Brumley demonstrates a clear and soaring voice on standards such as Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?, Just You Wait and I Could Have Danced All Night. She’s equally impressive matching verbal jousts with Christopher Guilmet as the officious Higgins, which is critical to the production’s success since Guilmet often seems too broad and belligerent in his portrayal.
In fact, Guilmet at times seems the embodiment of Shaw himself with his domineering, browbeating ways. In the tradition of Rex Harrison, he half-sings, half-speaks Higgins’ tunes, from The Rain in Spain to the show’s hallmark closing number, I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face. Much of the time he comes across more as shouting his lines than speaking them, and yet his portrayal can be very convincing. It’s a mixed bag that thus offers mixed results.
Local favorites John Flack and Zoe Vonder Haar shine as the addle-minded Pickering and Higgins’ refined, decidedly delightful mother, who quickly sides with the frustrated Eliza rather than her overbearing son.
Edward Juvier, a late addition to the cast, brings his larger-than-life gusto to the role of Eliza’s slacker father, Alfred P. Doolittle, in another performance that sometimes seems to go beyond the pale, even for the outrageous Doolittle. He largely succeeds, though, with the perennially popular numbers, With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time, with the able assistance of Sean Quinn and Patrick David as his whiskey-swilling pals, Jamie and Harry, respectively.
Brandon Davidson, as affable lightweight Freddie Eynsford-Hill, does a nice job warbling the Act I finale, On the Street Where You Live, and Kari Ely is thoroughly convincing as Higgins’ long-suffering domestic, Mrs. Pearce.
The large supporting cast, which brings both depth and polish to sundry smaller roles, includes Michele Burdette Elmore, Ellen Isom, Steve Isom, Larry Mabrey, Pamela Reckamp, Lori Barrett-Pagano, Lois Enders, Jonathan Kwock, Lindsey McKee, Lauren Roesner, Jeffrey Scott Stevens, Stephen Barnowski, Craig Blake, Alan Ball and Patrick David.
Costumes designed by Dorothy Marshall Englis range from the lavish attire of the upper-crust sorts (including a deliberately funny and incredibly ugly hat that looks like an admiralty reject) to the threadbare togs of Eliza’s street pals. Dana Lewis makes the most of the cozy Reim stage with her artful choreography, highlighted by the amusing Ascot Gavotte number, while Matthew McCarthy lights the action with a festive array of hues.
James Wolk offers a set design that provides plenty of open space for the street numbers as well as a handsome depiction of Higgins’ library, which is adorned with a number of quaint Victrolas and diction machines. Hamilton’s staging meshes seamlessly with Lisa Campbell Albert’s musical direction and Stuart Elmore’s orchestral design, providing sturdy underpinnings for the cast’s polished musical renditions.
Brumley’s Eliza is a spitfire and, thus, a fair match for the self-absorbed Higgins as portrayed by Guilmet. That combination breathes life into two of the theater’s most notable characters with mostly rousing results. You’re guaranteed to be humming one or more of the show’s classic melodies as you depart.
Musical: My Fair Lady
Company: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through October 6
Tickets: $20-$55; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak